When patients come to me with sleep issues, I usually start out by determining what the underlying problem could be. Everything from sleep apnea, to anxiety, to medications can affect the ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Trouble falling asleep.
For those who stay asleep but have trouble falling asleep, the most common culprit is mild everyday anxiety, such as worrying about the myriad of things you have to accomplish the following day. Your mind and body might not be prepared to rest, so make an effort to wind-down at the end of the day.
Expending extra energy with a 30-minute walk after dinner does wonders for releasing tension, as does journaling. Getting all of your thoughts and to-dos on paper helps put those persistent worries to bed, at least until morning. Finally, observing a daily bedtime routine, whether it’s reading, meditating, or taking a bath, can signal your brain that it’s time to sleep. Just make sure that your routine does not include texting or surfing the web. Research has shown that light emitted from electronic devices, including televisions, suppresses melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.
Trouble staying asleep.
Extra energy or nagging thoughts can also cause you to wake up frequently or not get back to sleep after waking. In that case, the same advice applies. But frequent trips to the bathroom or difficulty breathing could indicate a urinary problem or sleep apnea, which should be treated by your primary care provider.
If you’ve ruled out underlying health issues as the source of your sleeplessness and still can’t stay asleep, get out of bed. Yes, you read this correctly. Spend about 15 minutes trying to get back to sleep, and if you can’t, get up. Go into another room that’s dimly lit and read a book. Or, better yet, simply be alone with your thoughts. Do not get on the computer or your smartphone. Don’t try to go back to bed until you feel tired, whether it takes 30 minutes or three hours.
While health guidelines do state that adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep per day, you don’t have to get them consecutively. Many people are reluctant to get out of bed because they believe they’ll be getting less sleep, but the truth is that the worst thing you can do is lie there, tossing and turning. Restlessness churns anxiety and delays sleep even longer. Switching focus to something more peaceful, such as contemplation, can promote drowsiness and get you back to sleep when your body and mind are ready.
Society imposes an expectation that we have to be in bed at certain hours, but sleep habits are more individual than that. If you can sleep for a block of four hours, then another three later, there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is to find the right pattern that suits your sleep rhythms and lifestyle.
Author of this article
Holly Smith, MD, specializes in family medicine. She is a guest columnist and located at IU Health Physicians Primary Care – Anson, 6866 W. Stonegate Drive, Suite 100, in Zionsville. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.768.6000.